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My Brother’s Keeper turns to tech

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Oct 17, 2016

Last week, President Obama announced that the My Brother’s Keeper initiative would be partnering with Sprint Corporation to bring tablets, smartphones, and four years of data service to students who lack internet access at home. According to Sprint’s CEO Marcelo Claure, the company aims to complete distribution to 1 million low income young people within five years.

On the one hand, the program marks an encouraging effort to close stubborn digital divides between rich and poor students. Lack of connectivity at home can prove detrimental to poor students, particularly when it comes to homework or long-term assignments or even college applications that hinge on internet access. Getting reliable communications technologies into the hands of the young people can also bolster My Brother’s Keeper’s efforts to pair young men with mentors.

On the other hand, hardware and connectivity alone have rarely solved our most chronic social challenges.

In fact, we can learn from similar efforts decades ago inside schools: the laptop for every child movement. As excitement about the power of technology to educate children swelled, schools obliged, cramming technology into their existing classroom models. The results? Underwhelming at best. Oftentimes, laptop carts gathered dust at the back of the classroom and instruction continued on in a traditional manner.

Of course hindsight is 20/20. But it should come as no surprise that simply placing computers inside of classrooms does very little to yield new outcomes. The good news, however, is that schools have shifted their focus from just gobbling up hardware (although we still hear about 1:1 computer rollouts in superintendents’ plans), to investing in wholly new learning models that technology enables. Educators are turning to blended learning—the intentional integration of technology into instruction—to realize more dynamic and effective instructional models that can more predictably improve outcomes.

My Brother’s Keeper and Sprint can learn from the storied past of technology inside of school to shape how they deploy technology outside of school. If the mentoring initiative and its numerous community partners want to take advantage of this influx of technology, then they will need to invest in new models of mentorship and afterschool support that wrap around the new hardware.

Luckily, some of these models already exist. As I’ve written about before, software tools that connect students to new relationships are cropping up in three main segments of the edtech market: project-based learning curricula that connect classes to outside remote experts, tutoring services to provide on-demand help from non-teacher adults, and college access and success tools that supply online and face-to-face mentors and coaches. For example, Nepris ports experts into classrooms over video to introduce students to real-life professionals. iMentor provides online and face-to-face mentors to help students navigate the byzantine college application process. Tools like these depend on hardware and an internet connection. But they also offer a new and promising calculus for technology-enabled interactions and supports. People can maintain mentoring relationships with less face-to-face interaction than traditional mentoring required; algorithms can coordinate the supply and demand for mentors more easily than legacy databases; and new mentoring relationships can defy the stubborn geographic boundaries that often separate young people growing up in poor or isolated neighborhoods from adults working in regions ripe with opportunity. In short, they offer models for connecting kids that may be paving the way to a new wave of disruption in our K–12 education system—one that stands to solve the chronic opportunity gaps that My Brother’s Keeper originally set out to address.

Sprint’s generous donation could help unlock models like these for students who stand to gain the most. But although technology perhaps can engender human connections at a lower cost, we can’t blindly expect arming young people with phones and data plans to cause a new supportive connection or experience to forge out of thin air, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. Just like buying computers for schools didn’t revolutionize learning, buying cell phones and tablets for young people can’t revolutionize connecting. At worst, the new gadgets will gather dust in the corner. At best, they will digitize the networks and habits young people already have—allowing them, perhaps, to connect more seamlessly with those they know, but doing little to expand their networks to include supportive adults and peers who the My Brother’s Keeper program hopes could change their trajectory.

A piece of hardware means little inside of classrooms that were ill-designed to take advantage of it. Schools learned this lesson the hard way. Similarly, Sprint’s donation is a starting point, not an endgame. It’s an important chance to rethink models for mentorship, afterschool engagement, and homework help. Using its bully pulpit, My Brother’s Keeper should double down on making sure those new models take root.

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Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.